East Germans Tackle Education Reform

With textbooks and training from the West, teachers and students try a new approach to learning. BACK TO SCHOOL

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS East German schools begin the academic year this week, they are entering a new era. No longer is the classroom to be an incubator that hatches obedient socialists. Rather, it will have to introduce a new world to students and encourage them to think for themselves.

Educators here say it could take up to five years before East German schools can accomplish this.

Although new textbooks are on the way (courtesy of West Germany), it has not been possible to replace all textbooks. Although many school principals have been removed, the teachers have not. Those who spouted Karl Marx will still be heading classes this fall.

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``It's going to be another year of transition,'' says Gisela Kraft, the plucky principal of the Arthur Hoffmann School (Grades 1 through 10) here.

It is Ms. Kraft's job to introduce a new curriculum broadly outlined by the Education Ministry in East Berlin. Like other schools, Arthur Hoffmann will offer a new course on social studies, emphasize English, expand German literature to include prominent West German authors, and remove socialist dogma and fable from history and geography (see related story).

Shortly after East Germany's about-face last fall, many school districts here began working toward reform. By the end of the school year, the obligatory classes on ``citizen studies'' and ``civil defense'' were dropped from all schools. These courses covered Marxist-Leninist doctrine, party history, and military doctrine, and involved students in military exercises and drills.

In East Germany, only one state-owned publisher printed textbooks - flimsy paperbacks of newspaper quality. All students used the same books, which presented world events in terms of the socialist-imperialist conflict.

Through a 30 million deutsche mark ($19.4 million) program from Bonn, East German schools have been able to select new history, geography, and literature books from a variety of West German publishers. Five publishers are privately providing free English textbooks for fifth graders. (Previously, English was first offered in the seventh grade.) A week before classes were to start, however, the Arthur Hoffmann School had still not received its delivery of Western books.

But a far greater challenge than replacing textbooks, say educators here, is teachers and the student-teacher relationship.

``There were not a few [Communist Party] members who were teachers,'' says Hans-Joachim Erdmann, director of education for the district of Leipzig and himself a former party member. ``It will be quite difficult for some of them to cope with the new thinking.''

For months, seminars and teaching material have been flowing from West to East. Teachers have had the opportunity to take classes in history, religion, and teaching methods, among many topics.

But reeducation of teachers is not a matter of a few seminars.

``How are you going to teach the German classics if you don't know the Bible?'' Kraft asks.

J"urgen Handelmann, one of the history teachers at Arthur Hoffmann, says that before he could focus his attention on new material, ``I had a long personal fight with myself over what I had done ... that I had taught students incorrectly. I felt guilty about this.''

Over the summer, however, he has been in touch with teachers in the West, taken several seminars and workshops, and collected masses of new material. This year, he will teach contemporary history and plans to teach the East German revolution from his own chronology of events and newspaper clippings. During his history class last year, he says, students openly debated the political upheaval.

Some educators here, like Mr. Handelmann, predict learning and discipline difficulties because teachers who once taught communist ideology have changed their stripes and are teaching the virtues of democracy.

Sigrun Str"aubig, a colleague of Handelmann's, also a history teacher, says the teacher-student relationship depends on how open the teacher was in the past.

``Some teachers stuck very close to the plan and were dogmatic,'' she says. Others, and she includes herself in this category, sought out new material and tried to provide more context.

Ms. Str"aubig sees her biggest challenge as ``getting students to think critically.'' In the old days, both teachers agree, most students recited textbook passages verbatim in order to get good grades. They switched off their minds after learning early on that personal opinions did not belong in school.

Str"aubig, a Christian who never belonged to the Communist Party, is also concerned about unemployment among students' parents and believes teachers should play a role in helping students through this difficult period.

Kraft, the school principal, agrees. ``My greatest concern is that teachers and students become good partners as we go through this social change.''

Although Kraft used to be a Communist Party member, she was reelected to her job as principal for a period of two years. Her reelection is an example of attempts to democratize the school system.

Like all other school directors this year, Kraft had to step down, but was free to apply for the job again if she chose. A newly formed committee of 12 teachers, six parents, and six students approved her application, with only one person voting against it.

Unlike Kraft, however, many school principals were not reelected. Str"aubig describes Kraft's election as fair and says the principal had proven herself to be reform minded. Kraft defended her teachers before higher-up Communists in the education system, Str"aubig says.

Until the traditional states (L"ander) are recreated in East Germany in October, schools will continue to be administered from East Berlin. But after this, the system will reflect that of West Germany, where education is a matter of state jurisdiction.

Even though the East Germans will be adopting this administrative model, educators in Leipzig, at least, are not sure they want to swallow the West German educational system hook, line, and sinker.

Mr. Erdmann, the education director for the Leipzig district, says he does not want to establish three different types of high schools, as the West Germans have. He also wants to stick to all-day schools instead of switching to half-day schools, which is the West German norm. These and other issues related to education structure are already being hotly debated here.

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